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A Letter to Momo

Even scenes that work, such as a climax on a rain-soaked bridge, feel like they could have been trimmed by a few hand-drawn frames. Maybe…

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Cannibal

Visually striking and confident but frustratingly hollow in terms of character and narrative.

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Ballad of Narayama

"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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Monsieur Hire

Patrice Leconte's "Monsieur Hire" is a tragedy about loneliness and erotomania, told about two solitary people who have nothing else in common. It involves a…

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Grandpa Joe and Secretariat: A Christmas story

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Friday, January 14, 2011

Dear Bill and Roger:

Grandpa died today. Early this morning, in his sleep.

My husband and I drove the kids out to see him on Sunday, when we realized he was becoming too weak to move. It was good timing. We each got one last, long hug, and we sat with him as he watched the new "Superman" on cable. He stayed awake for the first half, then fell asleep.

My husband and uncle lifted him into the hospital bed in the living room and we sat with him. He reached up at one point and I grabbed his hand and he grabbed back and held tight for almost 20 minutes. I can't remember the last time we held hands, before that. A day later, after singing a few lines of the "Annie" song with my uncle, weakly, and then falling asleep, he stopped waking up at all.

I am so, so thankful, once again, that you both were able to help how and when you did. He didn't make it to the DVD release after all.

There's so much more I want to say but I don't know how to say it and I'm a little too teary right now, anyway. The computer screen keeps blurring up. I just thought you'd like to know this news.

Bless you both, Rachel

From Roger: This is a story by Rachel Estrada Ryan. It tells of the love over many years that her grandfather, Joseph Triano, has held for Secretariat. And how before he died he hoped to see the movie about the great horse.

I haven't changed a word of her writing.

There's one thing I want to say. Rachel pays me compliments. The fact is, I only did one thing to help Grandpa Joe achieve his dream. I forwarded her e-mail to my old college friend Bill Nack, who is Secretariat's biographer. The movie is based on his book.

This Nack is some piece of work. You will read here about how he put in a request for the pre-release DVD of the film, and then tracked down Grandpa Joe in the Staten Island phone book and called to say the movie was on the way.

• Rachel Estrada Ryan

OK, so here's what happened. This is the (really) long version. I apologize. I can't think of another way to tell it.

My grandfather went into the hospital on Friday, November 5th. He was very lethargic, more so than usual (he hasn't been in good health for a while), and my grandmother was concerned. Days turned into test-after-test, turned into weeks, turned into a transfer from Staten Island University Hospital to New York-Presbyterian. His vitals were such that biopsy was difficult, prolonging the definitive diagnosis that we all wanted. Finally, we knew. It was metastatic gallbladder cancer. They wouldn't give us a specific timeframe in terms of how long we could expect him to live, but if you Google "metastatic gallbladder cancer"...well.

We had a diagnosis and we also had all the doctors telling us: "There's really nothing we can do for him." We were to be relieved that he is not in pain and we were to watch my grandmother bring him home on hospice. We were to wait, and expect him to die soon.

Interesting part of all this was that my grandfather maintained amazingly good spirits. He's been known throughout his lifetime for his relatively difficult personality--sometimes he's barking at my grandmother and isolating himself socially, other times he's joking, playful, loving, affecting a winsome lilt in his voice. You never really know what you're going to get when you encounter him. Suddenly, however, he was all jokes and smiles, soft, pleasant, compliant. Heart-breakingly so.

He was sent home on hospice the day before Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving Day he was in a wheelchair, oxygen prongs in his nose, but still he was able to make it to my aunt's house for our annual family dinner. On Black Friday, I went with my husband and our three kids to my grandparents' to spend the day with him.

This is when I first heard of his desire to see "Secretariat."

The movie was almost all he talked about during that visit. As I told you in previous emails, my grandfather hasn't been to an actual movie theater in quite some time--instead, he waits for movies to come out on DVD, then gets them from the library. We'd almost convinced him that we could wheel him to a theater and set him up in the handicapped seating section without too much trouble when we realized that the movie was no longer playing in any theaters near us! We looked up when the DVD was going to become available and realized we had a months-long wait ahead. We weren't sure how many more months he was going to have. We started getting nervous.

My family and I went home on Friday night, but my mother stayed on with them until the next day. When she arrived home Saturday night she called to tell me of the rest of her visit. She told me he spent a good deal of that next day remarking on the cuteness of my kids, the goodness of my husband, even reminiscing about me as a little girl, bringing up memories that I never suspected he harbored, things even I didn't remember. The rest of the time, she said, he talked about "Secretariat." He didn't seem to be fully understanding that the movie was utterly unavailable, stuck in that limbo between theater and DVD releases. Or maybe he did understand. Maybe that's what made him so frantic.

In mid-October, he'd seen his beloved Charlie Rose interview Diane Lane and John Malkovitch. Ever since that interview, he'd been carrying with him the notion that he would see this movie at his earliest opportunity. Never mind his preceding fondness for the racehorse and its moment in history--there was also *Diane Lane* to consider. (It turns out--and I never really knew this before--my grandfather has a major thing for Diane Lane.) And then there he was, stuck with cancer, stuck dying, stuck in movie limbo.

When I got off the phone with my mother that Saturday night, she left me with this trailing, parting charge: "If there's any way you can figure out how to get him this movie, Rachel...."

I don't think she thought she was giving me a job to do. I don't think she expected there was anything I *could* do. But still, she said it. So I set off trying.

I started on Disney's website. I searched and searched for an email address or a contact form that seemed it'd be heading to the right department, but found none. Finally I located a snail mail address. I opened a Word document and started typing, then stopped halfway through. I needed a better idea.

This is when you came to mind, Roger. And all because of Chris Jones and his profile of you that appeared in Esquire earlier this year. I read that article after a link to it appeared in my Facebook news feed. To say that I was moved would be a gross understatement, but suffice to say my reaction mirrored that of many readers. I hadn't known that you'd been thus stricken, that you'd been through surgeries that took away your ability to talk, eat, drink. I hadn't known any of that, and then, suddenly knowing it, I cared so much. I felt so much for you, I cared so much about you. A little part of your story lodged itself in my heart, and I immediately started following you on Twitter. That was that, for many months, just you and the hundred or so other people who I follow trickling down my Twitter feed. I discovered that you have a very good sense of humor, I discovered that you often respond to your followers...I discovered that you are at your computer just about as much as I am (which is to say--A LOT).

It was suddenly so clear: "Who do I know who 1) has connections in the movie business and 2) might be so moved as to actually help me help my grandfather?" Roger Ebert.

I immediately crafted an email. I wrote so quickly that I failed to realize that my Apple Mail application had frozen a few hours earlier. I hit "send" before saving the draft. And guess what? Nothing happened. The email didn't send, and it didn't go to my Outbox, and it wasn't saved in my Drafts folder, either. It simply vanished, the screen froze, and I had to restart my computer.

In the time it took my computer to reboot, it occurred to me that I might want to investigate whether you even LIKED "Secretariat." I Googled your review, and that's when I discovered another serendipitous connection between you and our movie plight--not only did you have cancer, and would hopefully understand my grandfather's situation, but you gave the movie four stars and you were old college buddies with Bill Nack?!?!? I couldn't believe it. I started another email with even more enthusiasm. I was convinced that if anyone was going to be able to help us with this, it was going to be you. I'm pretty sure I told you as much. It just seemed meant to be.

I'll try to glance over the rest of this, since I trust you know most of the story from here on out. You wrote me back three days later. I almost fell out of my chair when I saw your name in my inbox. Sadly, on that particular day, my grandfather was back in the hospital for a blood transfusion and a tap on his belly to ease the pressure of the building fluid around his tumors. He was not feeling well at all. I called him in his hospital room and I gasped over the phone, "Roger Ebert! Roger Ebert wrote me back! He's going to try to help you get the movie!" Meanwhile, this was the first he'd heard of me even asking you (I was too embarrassed to go around announcing that I emailed you for help--I told only my husband and a close friend). He was tired and confused and I got only a, "That's nice. Very nice. Here, I'm going to give the phone to your grandmother."

So. That was that for two whole weeks. I'd almost put it out of my mind. I sent him the other movie you recommended, "Ruffian," but it was reported back that he'd been unable to stay awake long enough to watch the whole thing. My grandmother said she liked it. She said it was "nice." The whole thing was looking like it was going to be a "nice" story. I could say I tried, and things would go on as usual. Grandpa said maybe he'd try to read the book, though it seemed almost impossible that he'd ever regain the clarity of mind and extended alertness necessary to read such a long work.

Then, at 2:27PM on Tuesday the 14th, I checked my email during a business meeting. There was a message from a "Lee, Sharon" with no subject. I clicked on it, and this is what it said:

"Hello Rachel,

Your letter touched a lot of folks from the film and your request has come to me for handling.

On behalf of Disney, I would like to inform you we will be sending a copy of SECRETARIAT for your grandfather Joseph R. Triano.

Please send me his address as soon as possible.

Happy Holidays!

Sharon"

I flipped out. I ditched the rest of my business meeting (after blurting out the whole story about Grandpa, you, the movie) and ran home, making calls on my cell phone the whole way. When I called my grandparents this time, my grandfather was feeling much better, more alert. The fact that I'd been in contact with you had been explained to him thoroughly by that point. It was a wonderful conversation. I wish I would have recorded it. He was so excited. That winsome lilt of his was in FULL effect.

I got off the phone with them and was soon distracted by a business phone call. That conversation was interrupted by a call waiting beep, but I didn't click over as I didn't recognize the phone number. I checked my voicemail after I hung up. Disbelief multiplied with more disbelief--I was treated to a two-minute long message from Bill Nack, who explained his role in sending my message to Disney, his delight at hearing that Disney was indeed sending us a screener, and the fact that he'd just gotten off the phone with Mary Triano (Grandma!) after discovering my grandfather was the only Joe Triano in the Staten Island white pages.

Three days later (the day before yesterday--Friday the 17th), I got another email from Disney saying that they'd gotten UPS confirmation that the package was at my grandparents' front door. Thanks to my husband, I was able to jump into our minivan and battle my way through Long Island traffic to get to him. My grandmother didn't tell him the package had arrived--she let me give it to him when I got there. It turned out Disney had also sent a hat, a T-shirt and a pin (a replica of the one Diane Lane wears in the film). He took each item out of the box and turned them over in his hands, slowly, one by one. He read over every word on the DVD's cardboard sleeve, even the small print. We kind of just sat there for a while, taking it all in, smiling and shaking our heads.

Then we watched the movie.

I have videos that I'll send to you following this email, of his opening the box, of his reactions after watching it. After the credits concluded and before I started the camera, we just sat and stared at the screen for the longest time, just me and my grandparents, in silence. I almost can't say if I liked it. This was not just a movie. I don't think "Secretariat" will ever be just a movie for me. You ruined it for me, in that way, Roger. You made it into something more than it could ever really be, something magical, something transcendent, an object of my love for my grandfather. The fact that this horse lived, and died, and did something wonderful in between...it became both a universal truth and a specific one, as if pinpointing this very Joseph R. Triano, of Staten Island, New York, who has lived, and who is going to die, and who made me possible, me and my mother and my aunts and uncles, my cousins, my children. All his life he has been wonderful only if and when he wants to be--but I can tell you, those moments are worth the wait. He kissed me on the cheek that night, something he hasn't done since I was a little girl. It was 31 lengths and more. I am just so damn glad this happened. Thank you.

Rachel

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They shot horses, didn't they?

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"They Shoot Horses, Don't They?"

Four Stars

Gloria Jane Fonda Robert Michael Sarrazin Alice Susannah York Rocky Gig Young

Cinerama presents a film directed by Sydney Pollack. Screenplay by James Poe and Robert E. Thompson. Running time: 123 minutes. MPAA Rating: PG.

Review / Roger Ebert (1970)

Erase the forced smiles from the desperate faces, and what the dance marathons of the 1930s came down to was fairly simple. A roomful of human beings went around and around within four walls for weeks at a time without sleep, populating a circus for others who paid to see them. At the end, those who didn't collapse or drop dead won cash prizes that were good money during the Depression. And the Depression, in an oblique sort of way, was the reason for it all. The marathons offered money to the winners and distraction to everyone else.

To be sure, some of the marathons got pretty grim. Contestants tried to dance their way through illnesses and pregnancies, through lice and hallucinations, and the sight of them doing it was part of the show. Beyond the hit tunes and the crepe paper and the free pig as a door prize, there was an elementary sadism in the appeal of the marathons.

Among American spectator sports, they rank with stock-car racing. There was always that delicious possibility, you see, that somebody would die. Or freak out. Or stand helplessly while his partner collapsed and he lost the investment of hundreds of hours of his life.

"They Shoot Horses, Don't They?' is a masterful re-creation of the marathon era for audiences that are mostly unfamiliar with it. In addition to everything else it does, "Horses" holds our attention because it tells us something we didn't know about human nature and American society. It tells us a lot more than that, of course, but because it works on this fundamental level as well it is one of the best American movies of the 1970s. It is so good as a movie, indeed, that it doesn't have to bother with explaining the things in my first two paragraphs; they are all there and that's where I found them, but they are completely incorporated into the structure of the film.

Director Sydney Pollack has built a ballroom and filled it with characters. They come from nowhere, really; Michael Sarrazin is photographed as if he has walked into the ballroom directly from the sea. The characters seem to have no histories, no alternate lives; they exist only within the walls of the ballroom and during the ticking of the official clock. Pollack has simplified the universe. He has got everything in life boiled down to this silly contest; and what he tells us has more to do with lives than contests.

Sarrazin meets Jane Fonda, and they became partners almost absentmindedly; he wasn't even planning on entering a marathon. There are other contestants, particularly Red Buttons and Bonnie Bedelia in splendid supporting performances, and they are whipped around the floor by the false enthusiasm of Gig Young, the master of ceremonies. "Yowzza!Yowzza!" he chants, and all the while he regards the contestants with the peculiarly disinterested curiosity of an exhausted god.

There are not a lot of laughs in "Horses," because Pollack has directed from the point of view of the contestants. They are bitter beyond any hope of release. The movie's delicately timed pacing and Pollack's visual style work almost stealthily to involve us; we begin to feel the physical weariness and spiritual desperation of the characters.

The movie begins on a note of alienation and spirals down from there. "Horses" provides us no cheap release at the end; and the ending, precisely because it is so obvious, is all the more effective. We knew it was coming. Even the title gave it away. And when it comes, it is effective not because it is a surprise but because it is inevitable. As inevitable as death.

The performances are perfectly matched to Pollack's grim vision. Jane Fonda is hard, unbreakable, filled with hate and fear. Sarrazin can do nothing, really, but stand there and pity her; no one, not even during the Depression, should have to feel so without hope. Red Buttons, as the sailor who's a veteran of other marathons and cheerfully teaches everybody the ropes, reminds us that the great character actor from "Sayanora" still exists, and that comedians are somehow the best in certain tragic roles.

And that's what the movie comes down to, maybe. The characters are comedians trapped in tragic roles. They signed up for the three square meals a day and the crack at the $1,500 prize, and they can stop after all whenever they want to. But somehow they can't stop, and as the hundreds and thousands of hours of weariness and futility begin to accumulate, the great dance marathon begins to look more and more like life.

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Susannah York, 1939-2011

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By Roger Ebert

Susannah York, the British actress who could plunge deep into drama and then skip playfully in comedies, died Saturday of bone marrow cancer. She was 72.

Raised in Scotland, a graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, she was 20 when she made her first important film, the classic "Tunes of Glory" with Alec Guinness.

She was to become an icon of 1960s British films in such titles as "Kaleidoscope," "A Man for All Seasons," "The Killing of Sister George," "Oh! What a Lovely War" and "The Battle of Britain." She memorably played a patient in John Huston's "Freud" (1962), starring Montgomery Clift. But it was as a newlywed struggling to win a marathon dance prize in the American film "They Shoot Horses, Don't They" (1969) that she won an Academy Award nomination.

In 1972 she won the best actress award at the Cannes Film Festival as a schizophrenic housewife in Robert Altman's "Images." Altman fulminated for the rest of his life that York and the film never received the respect they deserved.

York starred in films as recently as 2009, and did a great deal of London stage work and television. One success was Piers Haggard's "A Summer Story" (1988), adapted from the John Galsworthy story. Petite and lively all her life, her hair often in a pixie cut, she was a popular guest on British chat and game shows.

Married in 1960 to the actor Michael Wells, she had two children, Sasha and the actor Orlando Woods, before their divorce in 1973. She and her children had close-by homes near Clapham Common in South London, and Orlando told the Guardian: "She loved nothing more than cooking a good Sunday roast and sitting around a fire of a winter's evening. In some senses, she was quite a home girl. Both Sasha and I feel incredibly lucky to have her as a mother."

In private life she was a political activist, active in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. She is survived by her children and two grandchildren.

Tom Jones (1964) Directed by Tony Richardson.

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Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in Richard Lester's "The Bed-Sitting Room"

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View "The Bed-Sitting Room," complete and legally.

Watch The Bed Sitting Room (1969, Richard Lester) in Comedy  |  View More Free Videos Online at Veoh.com

"The Bed-Sitting Room" A film written and directed by Richard Lester. Featuring Rita Tushingham, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Spike Mulligan, Arthur Lowe, Marty Feldman, Ralph Richardson and Harry Secombe. Classified PG.

By Roger Ebert / December 10, 1976

If "Monty Python's Flying Circus" had never existed, Richard Lester would still have invented it. In 1970 he directed "The Bed-Sitting Room," a film which so uncannily predicts the style and manner of Python that we think for a moment we're watching television. The movie's dotty and savage; acerbic and slapstick and quintessentially British.

It was also a total disaster at the box office. So great was its failure, indeed, that Lester didn't get another directing assignment until 1974 and "The Three Musketeers." He'd been one of the most popular filmmakers of the 1960s ("A Hard Day's Night," "How I Won the War,") but "The Bed-Sitting Room" hardly opened.

It's an after-the-Bomb movie, but like no other. It takes place at some time in the fairly immediate future, after England and (we gather) the rest of the world have been almost wiped out by a nuclear war. A few people still survive. Some of them ride on an endlessly circling underground train (powered by an earnest young man peddling a bicycle). Others roam through the debris above. They try to appear as proper as possible by wearing the right clothes. From his midriff up, for example, the BBC announcer wears a tuxedo. Everything below is rags, but you can't see that when he's broadcasting (which he does by holding a TV set in front of his face and talking.)

People seem to be genial enough. There's a pregnant young girl (Rita Tushingham) who lives with Mum and Dad on the underground train. There's a genial gentleman (Ralph Richardson) who goes about looking into other people's business. There are two policemen (Peter Cook and Dudley Moore) who operate out of a wrecked Volkswagen suspended from a hot-air balloon. And there's poor Arthur Lowe, who's obsessed by the fear that he'll turn into a bed-sitting room. Well, we all are. All of the characters are mad, of course, but that's not the point; this isn't a heavy-handed anti-war parable, but a series of sketches that gradually grow more and more grim.

Things start out fairly cheerfully, actually. At one point a messenger arrives with a pie, asks if he has the correct person, and when he finds he does, throws the pie into the man's face. So now we know where that fad came from. Later, though, the smiles grow more forced. The characters try to maintain an adequate British reserve, but it's a little hard when you find you are likely to turn into a bed-sitting room. Escalators from the underground are likely to dump you in mid-air, a square meal is hard to come by, Rita Tushingham's baby dies and so on. Since the movie accompanies all of this material with mindlessly mechanical music hall tunes, the effect is macabre.

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